5W Friday Panel: Batman: The Animated Series at 25

Every Friday, the Fifth World will host a virtual panel session on a topic of the week.  This week's subject: Batman: The Animated Series.

Batman: The Animated Series debuted twenty-five years ago this fall, launching what would become the DC Animated Universe. What are some of your favorite BtAS episodes?

Batman: The Animated Series

Heart of Ice (1992)

This was the first episode broadcast in the regular weekday afternoon time slot, and it was well-chosen for that purpose. Paul Dini’s script sets the tone for the series with its smart, sympathetic reimagining of a once-tired villain. Prior to this episode Mr. Freeze was a joke, a freezer-burned leftover from the 1960s (Grant Morrison even sentenced him to comic book limbo in the pages of Animal Man). Never again. Veteran actor and professional Klingon Michael Ansara makes you care about Victor Fries, ironically by flattening his own affect until Mr. Freeze sounds like a cold, emotionless robot—though crucially, he only thinks his heart is frozen.

The episode was produced early enough that the creative team is still ironing out some of the kinks: there’s a guest performance by a pre-Joker Mark Hamill as Freeze’s hated enemy, a callous executive named (what else?) Ferris Boyle, and in one scene the Batcave has an escalator. (Not pictured: the Spencer’s next to the food court with the Orange Julius.) But it’s amazing how much they nailed right out of the gate. This one won’t be anybody’s surprise pick for favorite episode, but hey, sometimes the obvious choices are obvious for good reason. - Marc Singer

Harley’s Holiday (1994)

The first thing that jumped out for me when I saw this episode is “Whoa. A Harley episode without Joker.” I find I like Harley better in pretty much anything without the Joker, from comic book to live-action. This episode is a perfect example when Harley gets freed from Arkham and tries to go through a normal day that quickly devolves into an accidental kidnapping and car chases. Harley’s trying to do her best but her worldview is so different than others and their expectations for her to return to a life of crime.

Everyone’s reactions in this episode were perfect, from Bruce/Batman trying hard to save Harley from more trouble to Poison Ivy sharing a look with Robin as Harley kisses Batman. This episode exemplifies what makes Harley Quinn a crazy but at her heart a decent character. It also shows in the actions of those closely connected to Batman—Robin, Commissioner Gordon, Veronica Vreeland—that he believes in the ability of most to change and that belief is shared with the people he associates with. Batman’s relationship with his rogues from Scarecrow in the episode’s beginning to Harley and Ivy at the end is a similar but tougher version of Flash’s in the JLU episode “Flash and Substance.” – Sean Fields

Heart of Ice (1992) / Deep Freeze (1994) / Cold Comfort (1997) / Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero (1998)

I loved Batman: The Animated Series from the start, having been a Batman fan since childhood. At the time, Batman was (in my opinion) wallowing in a largely joyless stretch of material following “A Death in the Family” and The Dark Knight Returns. Many creators at the time seemed to determined to portray Batman as an angry, mirthless, psychopath different from Marvel’s Punisher predominantly in his refusal to use firearms. While the BtAS vision of Batman could be dark and grim, and therefore not a jarring departure from what was in the comics at the time, he was also capable of deep warmth, compassion, and even humor. From episode one till today, this is the Batman I think of as “my” Batman.

I also can’t rave enough about the voice acting job Kevin Conroy did as both Bruce Wayne and Batman. Nailing both characters regardless of what the script demanded, Conroy was able to give us a Batman that could be mysterious and menacing as needed without resorting to a bizarrely raspy voice affectation. Conroy will always be “my” Batman as far as voice acting is concerned.

Trying to choose favorite episodes from the vast span of the DC Animated Universe that BtAS gave rise to is too daunting a task for my meager cognitive resources. Instead, I’d like to point to my favorite “thread” throughout the BtAS run specifically: the story of Victor Fries, aka Mr. Freeze (spectacularly voiced by Michael Ansara, I should add).

Mr. Freeze had been one of my favorite villain characters since I was a callow tyke, as Freeze was one of the few who had actual super powers, artificial as they were. He just always seemed like one of the most legit physical threats to the Dynamic Duo. The BtAS version kicks off with a bang in “Heart of Ice,” for which writer Paul Dini won a Daytime Emmy Award, establishing Freeze as a villain at once tragic, self-defeating, wrong, but sympathetic. And powerful. He was a credible threat and a credible character.

He would go on to appear in many terrific episodes of BtAS, including a straight-to-video movie that should have (and was originally supposed to have had) a theatrical release. Over his appearances Freeze’s physical and mental health deteriorated, although he remained coldly “rational” (from his point of view) and menacing, eventually becoming a full-fledged cyborg.

For me, nothing better exemplifies the DC Animated Universe’s ability to synthesize influences and elements both “campy” and sinister to create fresh takes on classic characters that fit perfectly within the Platonic ideal Bat-mythos (and later, thanks to Justice League/Justice League Unlimited, DC mythos) they crafted better than the thread of episodes featuring Mr. Freeze. - Chris Maka

The New Batman Adventures

The Ultimate Thrill (1998)

It took me a while to get used to the angular new animation style, but once I did this became one of my favorite DC animated series. The sharp designs are more Saul Bass than the Fleischer brothers, and they’re buoyed by incredibly strong writing that’s always taking the characters to new places. Several episodes from this short run are instant classics, and the appearance of characters like the Demon and the Creeper further integrate Batman into the rapidly expanding DC animated universe.

My favorite episode does none of those things. “The Ultimate Thrill” doesn’t feature any super-cameos or Dick Sprang pastiches, it doesn't represent a major step in anyone’s growth, and it pits Batman against an original villain (always a dicey proposition even in the DCAU). It stands out through strong character designs, sheer skill in execution, and one of the boldest endings ever written for what was still nominally a children’s show.

Besides casting the Penguin in the role he was born to play as the dandified gangster who always stays one step ahead of the law, this episode builds up to an amazing final confrontation between Batman and the thrill-seeking Roxy Rocket. His stoic demeanor in the face of death pushes her to orgasmic highs before he shows her that chasing the ultimate ride can be fun and safe as long as you’re wearing the proper protection. None of this is a metaphor. On the off-chance you haven’t watched this one since hitting puberty, go back and give it another look. - Marc Singer

Legends of the Dark Knight (1998)

One of a few anthology episodes in the series, "Legends of the Dark Knight" follows three kids (one of whom should look quite familiar to Bat fans) as they discuss their very different views of what Batman is like.  This conceit allows the episode to showcase animation based on both Dick Sprang and Frank Miller.  The Sprang story features the obligatory giant replica props and a Joker whose design would be reused a decade later for Batman: The Brave and the Bold.  The Miller story tells an almost direct adaptation of the mutant storyline from The Dark Knight Returns and presages the home video adaptation released by Warner Bros. Animation in 2012 and 2013.  Each version is voiced by different actors (including Michael McKean as the Sprang Joker), giving each version a unique feel beyond the visuals.  The "real" Batman of course also makes an appearance.  I love anthology episodes (I came close to also nominating "Almost Got 'Im" from Batman: The Animated Series) and the care taken in rendering the alternate versions of Batman shows a real love and respect for the source material.  - JL Franke

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5W Friday Panel: Batman: The Animated Series at 25 5W Friday Panel: Batman: The Animated Series at 25 Reviewed by Marc Singer on Friday, October 27, 2017 Rating: 5
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